Film Review: California Company Town

Lee Anne Schmitt's simultaneously haunting and tiresome documentary is like a New Age western, with its fond look backward and harsh criticism of the present.
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California Company Town uses a deadpan, controlled tone to savagely attack the failures of capitalism and commercialism at the expense of the American landscape. Specifically surveying a series of deserted industrial towns in California, director Lee Anne Schmitt gets her point across in an aesthetically intriguing but thematically redundant way.

California Company Town should attract art-house devotees and environmentalists alike, though it is hard to imagine the film getting a huge following. Positive word of mouth will help considerably.

Schmitt, who also wrote, produced, photographed and edited this cinematic essay, has previously examined the death of the American Dream in the quizzical terrain of the nation’s gambling mecca in her 2000 short Las Vegas. But California Company Town, Schmitt’s first feature, is far more ambitious. Much of film is composed of static long takes of 14 West Coast towns, including the ironically named Darwin, but also McKittrick, Kaweah, Chester, Scotia, et al. Schmitt narrates the mini-histories of these places, which currently resemble ghost towns, while juxtaposing her shots with archival stills and footage of the busy, more “innocent” glory days when industry and labor first began the promise of developing the territories.

Sadly, according to Schmitt, greed and lack of true entrepreneurial spirit destroyed not only the environment but also the lives of the workers, who were forced to leave when the mining and lumber jobs dried up.

What could have been a straightforward documentary with talking-head interviews with former workers and business people becomes an artistic statement in the style of Depression-era photographer Walker Evans. Further, Schmitt incorporates rock and folk music and radio broadcasts to either comment on or challenge the imagery. The most ironic passage comes early, as George W. Bush, on the radio, extols America’s commitment to “freedom” while we clearly witness the devastating results of Westward Expansion. A later episode about the internment during World War II of Japanese-Americans speaks even more loudly about the contradictions between political rhetoric and historical reality.

The only real drawback to Schmitt’s intelligently crafted film is that it doesn’t take very long to figure out the central thesis, and some of the repetition over 76 minutes does not add significantly to her argument. By contrast, the similar but more ambiguous work of European filmmaker Chris Marker possesses a greater and everlasting emotional pull.

Still, California Company Town is worth a visit—however out of the way it is to view.